Outer Banks: Ready or Not?

By John Briley
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, January 25, 2004

Residents, shopkeepers and officials of North Carolina's Outer Banks have two messages for would-be vacationers wondering about the condition of the banks after Hurricane Isabel's visit last September:

" "Come on down -- we're open!"

" And, a tad to the contrary: "Omigod, have you seen Hatteras Village?"

I heard a lot of both on a trip to the area last week to assess what travelers to the Outer Banks might expect this summer.

Bottom line: Although beach erosion and storm-flattened dunes are evident throughout the area, the vast majority of the Outer Banks will be ready for visitors when tourist season kicks off in April. In fact, the towns north of Hatteras Island are already back in full swing.

But Hatteras Village, the southernmost of the seven towns on Hatteras Island, is a different story. Isabel obliterated numerous businesses and damaged scores of homes in the village, which accounts for about one-sixth of the yearly tourism revenue on Hatteras Island.

Other areas that sustained serious damage include the towns of Rodanthe and Kitty Hawk, and the road and beach on the north end of Ocracoke Island.

Despite a heroic -- and ongoing -- cleanup effort, the prospects for a normal summer season in Hatteras Village look grim. "I don't see how we'll clean all this up and have a good face on by summer," said Tim Midgett, president of Midgett Realty and chairman of the Dare County Tourism Board.

The north end of Hatteras Village, which starts roughly 57 miles south of Nags Head, looks like a bomb site. In one brief stretch, where four beachfront motels stood pre-Isabel, there is now the sand-filled shell of one wing of the Sea Gull Motel (Isabel moved the other concrete wing across Highway 12); the battered husk of the General Mitchell Motel (empty and condemned); and an empty lot, save for a swimming pool ladder sticking eerily out of the sand, where the historic Durant Station Motel stood. Isabel blasted Durant into Pamlico Sound (some locals reportedly found the building's cupola in the sound last week).

Just north of that cluster is what's left of Hatteras Cabanas. A handful of wooden units (of an original 40) are still standing, on the stilts designed to protect them during big storms. A closer look reveals boarded-up windows, torn decking and "do not enter" signs. The units are scheduled to be torn down.

Overall, Dare County, which includes the Outer Banks from Corolla to Hatteras, lost about 400 hotel and motel rooms to Isabel -- roughly 12 percent of the 3,196 hotel and motel rooms along the Outer Banks, said Carolyn McCormick, managing director of the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau.

Hatteras Village alone lost 294 of its 436 rooms, Midgett said. Even after rebuilding is complete, he said, "we still will have lost half of what we had."

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